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‘We’ve been negligent,’ Indonesia’s president says as fire crisis deepens

Land burning in an oil palm concession owned by PT Agro Tumbuh Gemilang Abadi (ATGA). Image by Elviza Diana/Mongabay-Indonesia.

  • Indonesia’s government has been negligent in anticipating and preparing for this year’s fire season, the country’s president says.
  • The fires, set mostly to clear land for planting, have razed huge swaths of forest and generated toxic haze that has spread as far as Malaysia and Singapore.
  • The president’s acknowledgement of the government’s lack of preparation comes in the wake of his own ministers apportioning blame for the fires to other parties.
  • Activists say the government has little moral standing to go after the companies that have set their concessions ablaze, noting that the government itself has refused to take responsibility for failing to do enough to tackle similar fires in 2015.

JAKARTA — Indonesia’s president has admitted negligence on the part of the government, as top officials engage in a blame game amid the worst spate of forest fires since 2015 that’s sending clouds of toxic haze across large swaths of the country and abroad.

This year’s fires, most of them set deliberately to clear land for planting, have burned nearly 340,000 hectares (840,000 acres) as of Aug. 31 — an area a third the size of Jamaica — according to data from the environment ministry.

“Ahead of the dry season, everyone should have been prepared,” President Joko Widodo said on Sept. 17 during a meeting with officials in Sumatra’s Riau province, one of the worst-affected regions.

“But we’ve been negligent again [this year], so the haze has become big,” he added.

He reminded the officials that during a meeting in Jakarta in July, he had emphasized the importance of preventive measures to stop the fires spreading out of control. “Because if there are already fires, especially on peatland, then it’s very hard to extinguish [them], based on our experiences in past years,” he said.

Widodo also lamented the failure of the relevant state institutions, including the police and the military, to respond quickly enough to the fires.

“We have it all, but these instruments aren’t activated well,” he said. “If they’re activated well, then I’m sure a single fire hotspot will be detected first before it grows into hundreds of fire hotspots. And I’ve reminded that numerous times. What we’re dealing with here isn’t forest [fires], but peatland, which if it’s already burned, then no matter how many million liters [of water] we expend, it’s still difficult to extinguish.”

The president’s remarks come after several of his top aides issued a series of widely ridiculed claims about the fires, haze, and their cause. Siti Nurbaya Bakar, the environment minister, was criticized last week for denying that the fires in Indonesia were sending haze to Malaysia and Singapore, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. She has since doubled down on her position, pointing out that five Singapore- and Malaysia-affiliated companies have had their concessions sealed off because fires had been set there. Thirty-seven other concessions, held by Indonesian companies, have been similarly censured.

Meanwhile, the president’s chief of staff, Moeldoko, called on people affected by the haze to be patient and pray, blaming the disaster squarely on “God.” The country’s chief security minister, Wiranto, had a different take, blaming smallholders for setting the fires. He then also claimed that there was a political angle to the arson, linking the burning to the elections that took place in April.

Burning in Jambi’s protected peat forest Lorendang where restoration efforts by WWF-Indonesia and the Peat Restoration Agency take place. Image by Elviza Diana/Mongabay Indonesia.

Fixing the mistakes

In light of these claims, environmental activists have welcomed the president’s acknowledgement of the government’s lack of preparedness to deal with the fires. But just admitting it isn’t enough, said Khalisah Khalid, head of politics at the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), the country’s biggest green NGO.

“What about fixing these mistakes?” she told Mongabay. “If [the president] is really angry, then he should evaluate all ministries, government institutions and local governments. He has to do a comprehensive evaluation to find out where the bottleneck is. What’s preventing [forest fire mitigation from being effective]?”

Teguh Surya, the director of Yayasan Madani Berkelanjutan, another environmental NGO, said the president should reflect on his own actions — or the lack thereof — if he really wanted to tackle the annual disaster.

Activists and experts have long identified the problems hindering the government’s efforts at preventing forest fires. These include ineffective enforcement of fines for companies found guilty in court of setting fires; lack of coordination between government agencies responsible for various aspects of fire prevention and mitigation; and lack of transparency over a government program to restore degraded peatland across the country.

Bambang Hero Saharjo, the Indonesian government’s chief expert witness in its prosecutions of companies found setting fires on their concessions, said one of the problems was that local governments were not serious about tackling forest fires, given the lack of funding allocated for the issue. Each district government often only allocates around $2,000 a year to fight forest fires, he said.

“Many district and provincial governments do almost nothing because there’s almost no funding to mitigate fires,” Bambang, an expert in fire forensics from the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB), said as quoted by Kompas daily.

Despite these well-documented problems, Widodo has not responded to activists’ pleas to address these shortcomings, Teguh told Mongabay.

“It’s funny because Pak Jokowi knows that the key is to prevent [forest fires],” Teguh said, referring to the president by his nickname. “But why he doesn’t take leadership in making sure that the target to restore degraded peatland is achieved?”

He added that it would be better for the president to address these problems instead of being seen to lash out at his subordinates every year when the fires inevitably grow out of control.

“Threatening public officials during forest fires is a waste of time,” Teguh said. “If he wants to give an ultimatum, then do it before the forest fires, so that fire prevention truly happens.”

A peat swamp in Sumatra smolders during the 2015 haze crisis. The drainage canals were dug in order to prepare the land for planting with oil palm, but the practice renders the land vulnerable to catching fire. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Setting a bad example

Khalisah said she suspected the government wasn’t serious about tackling forest fires, given that many top officials also have business interests in the agriculture and forestry industries, including palm oil, whose expansion contributes to the annual forest fires. She pointed to the government’s continued refusal to publish data and maps about oil palm plantations, in violation of a ruling by the country’s highest court that declared such information to be of public interest and to be disclosed immediately.

If Widodo is truly committed to tackling forest fires, Khalisah said, then transparency should be high up on his agenda.

She also faulted him for failing to mention anything about the victims of the ongoing haze crisis during his visit to a burned area in Riau. Instead, Widodo emphasized the need to ensure that the haze episode didn’t affect the province’s economy, including through canceled flights and other disruptions.

Khalisah said the president’s remarks appeared to be tone deaf.

“Why was there no sense of empathy for the victims in his speech?” she said. “He only saw the economic loss. His head is dominated with the economy.”

Khalisah said that tone deafness extended to the government’s own refusal to accept multiple court rulings holding it liable for the fires and haze in 2015, in a lawsuit filed in 2016 by a coalition of affected citizens and environmental activists.

The nation’s highest court ruled earlier this year to uphold successive decisions by lower courts in favor of the plaintiffs. It found the government had failed in its responsibility to mitigate disasters, in this case forest fires, thereby allowing the problem to recur every year. It also ordered the government to accommodate the demands of the plaintiffs to carry out meaningful fire prevention and mitigation measures.

But the government continues to object to the findings, saying it will file a case review, a final avenue of legal recourse that’s permitted if there’s new evidence or circumstances. Siti, the environment minister, blamed the circumstances leading up to the 2015 fires on the policies of the previous administration, saying the problem was something that Widodo had inherited when he took office in 2014.

But Khalisah said this refusal to accept responsibility for the earlier fires meant the government had no moral standing when it came to prosecuting companies guilty of setting forest fires. The example that it has set will only encourage such companies to also take a belligerent stance and refuse to pay the court-ordered fines, Khalisah said.

“Companies are doing that [not paying fines] because they’re following the example set by the government,” she said. “If the state can do it, why not the companies? It’s a bad example given by the government and thus the state has no authority in the eyes of these companies.”

She added that if the government would only abide by the ruling, it would have had time to carry out some of the recommended measures, making it likely that this year’s forest fires might not have been as severe as they are now.

“If the president admits the government’s negligence, then just revoke the case review,” Khalisah said. “By obeying the ruling, at least some of the work gets done.”

Children in villages near Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, wearing masks during a haze episode. Image by Lina A. Karolina.

Slow response to an extraordinary crime

To prod the government into action, a group of environmental and human rights activists have sent an open letter to the president. In it, they list 10 demands, including the provision of free health care and shelters for all those affected by the haze.

The group, which includes Walhi, said it sent the letter because it didn’t see a sense of urgency in the government’s current response to the fires.

“This is the first time we’ve sent an open letter,” Khalisah said. “Because we see that there’s an emergency and the response has been slow. We see this as an extraordinary crime that has to come to the public attention.”

She said the disaster had claimed at least two lives to date. One of them, a 69-year-old farmer in Riau named Mulyoto, was burned to death while trying to extinguish the fires on his land on Sept. 11.

On Sept. 15, a 4-month-old baby named Elsa Pitaloka in South Sumatra province died from an infection linked to the haze there. Witnesses reported that the child’s village in the district of Banyuasin had been shrouded in haze from nearby forest fires for three straight days.

“The response [by the government] has been so slow that a baby fell victim, which was extremely shocking to us,” Khalisah said. “That’s why we took the initiative to send the open letter to the president.”

Siti Rahma Mary, the head of the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI), another co-signer of the letter, said people had largely been left to fend for themselves in the face of the fires and haze.

“When citizens suffer from lung diseases and then die away, there’s no quick response [from the government], and thus people don’t know where to go,” she said.

Nisa Anisa, from the NGO Solidaritas Perempuan (Women’s Solidarity for Human Rights), which also signed the letter, said there were at least 20 pregnant women in a single village in Central Kalimantan province, in Indonesian Borneo, who were at risk of serious health issues as a result of the haze enveloping their village.

“Imagine these pregnant women in a remote village with no information on what they should do,” she said. “Not only is there minimal information, they also don’t have a health clinic [nearby]. It’s important for pregnant women to always check the their health and their babies’ health.”


Banner image: Land burning in an oil palm concession owned by PT Agro Tumbuh Gemilang Abadi (ATGA) in Jambi, Indonesia. Image by Elviza Diana/Mongabay-Indonesia.


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